THE SURPRISING STORY BEHIND A TROVE OF VINTAGE PHOTOS SHOWING THE ORIGINAL REBEL AT WORK AND PLAY
By Christina Rees
When the 24-year-old James Dean died in a car crash on September 30, 1955, an up-and-coming director named Robert Altman was in the middle of making a documentary about the young movie star. Altman, along with the documentary’s producer, his friend George W. George, was as stunned as the rest of the world by the tragedy, with the added shock that Dean’s death ground their project to a halt mid-production. Following Dean’s meteoric rise via his starring role in East of Eden (the much-anticipated Rebel Without a Cause and Giant had yet to be released), the world was hungry for this filmic profile, and Altman and George had Dean’s full participation. Now their subject was gone.
George’s daughter, Jennifer George, explains the filmmakers’ determination to continue the project: “They regrouped pretty quickly. They had a lot of momentum because in a sense they were just kids themselves. They had that energy.” Jennifer describes the ingenious workaround devised by her father and Altman, spelled out in the completed and successful documentary’s opening credits, which scroll in its first moments:
“A DIFFERENT KIND OF MOTION PICTURE
The presence of the leading character in this film has been made possible by the use of existing motion picture material, tape recordings of his voice and by means of a new technique – dynamic exploration of the still photograph.”
In other words, the resulting 1957 release, The James Dean Story, relied upon, as its main source material, a treasure trove of gorgeous black-and-white stills of the ever-photogenic Dean at work and play – sourced from the many photographers and Dean family members who had captured the charismatic Dean throughout his short life and most prominently in his recent turn as a bona fide movie star. The resulting film exists because of what we nowadays refer to as the “Ken Burns Effect” – named after the prolific standard-bearer of award-winning documentaries – of panning and zooming across still imagery to illustrate and illuminate the subject and the overlaying narration.
October 17, 2023
Jennifer George – who is not only George W. George’s daughter but also the granddaughter of George’s dad, the national treasure Rube Goldberg – inherited the precious archive of Dean photos used in the documentary. She’s now sharing them with photography connoisseurs and collectors of Dean’s legacy (if not Altman completists) in Heritage’s October 17 Photographs Signature® Auction. The archive anchors an event packed with not only indelible and iconic images of Dean, but also fantastic photographs by Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe, George Tice, O. Winston Link and many more.
“It’s a shame that the collection has been in a closet for the last 20 years,” Jennifer says of her father’s Dean photo archive. She recounts growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her prolific writer-producer father (among his later hits is My Dinner With Andre) and her mother, Judith Ross, a television and film screenwriter and playwright. Being surrounded by great talent and the byproducts of successful film and theater projects has always been the norm for Jennifer (she is a successful designer in her own right and the director of The Rube Goldberg Institute, a nonprofit committed to equity and access in STEM and art education). But, as she notes, “In my own collecting, I am prone to excess! Let’s just say that in a bout of Marie Kondo-ing and Swedish death cleaning, I realized it was time to share this wonderful archive with others.”
The 42 lots from the George archive, of which a portion of the proceeds will go to The Rube Goldberg Institute, each include a handful of photographs of Dean, with connected themes and places, and feature shots of the James Dean we love to remember: fooling around on and off the sets of Rebel and Giant(Liz Taylor makes an appearance, of course); taking in the hustle of New York in his relaxed and ineffable style; enjoying his Porsche Speedster at the racetrack; hard at work in acting and dance classes (that’s Eartha Kitt in the foreground); visiting his uncle’s farmhouse. Dozens of photos of Dean shot by Dennis Stock for a Life magazine profile are here, too, and were used in the documentary, including this understated beauty shot in Times Square, along with other stunning photos of the star captured by Roy Schatt, Richard C. Miller, Frank Worth and more.
The photographers’ visions of this incandescent talent breathed life into Altman and George’s film, and they’re how we understand Dean to this day – his public day-to-day and, more wrenchingly, his private playfulness, grace and quietude. A life cut short long before we could begin to grasp his full and fiery potential. Through this surprising collection that gives movement and light to the James Dean the world could not get enough of, the young star shines on.
See the slideshow below for more Dean photos from the George archive.
CHRISTINA REES is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.